Friday, July 16, 2010

Chong's food bill tough to swallow

Tough economic times are a particularly sensitive time to be learning that our political leaders think  belt-tightening doesn’t apply to them.
Admittedly, news of elected officials pushing the limits on how much of the public dollar they’re spending on themselves is unsettling at the best of times.
But when a province is in the midst of wiping out services and supports for people who really, really need them, it is truly offensive to hear about things like Ida Chong making full use of her publicly funded meal plan.   
We paid for $6,000 worth of restaurant eating for the Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA last year.   Chong was within her rights to claim it, mind you; legislature rules allow even local MLAs to charge up to $61 a day for restaurant meals while on the job in Victoria.
But would you do it? If services and supports were crashing all around you during a terrible economic year and it was your job to set things right, would you feel comfortable claiming $6,000 in restaurant tabs?
Not to put too dramatic a point on it, but little children suffered in B.C. so that Ida Chong could avoid packing a bagged lunch.
Her restaurant bill was equivalent to almost five months of full-time work for somebody earning minimum wage, which pays per eight-hour day roughly what MLAs are eligible to claim for a day’s eating. You could subsidize daycare for three school-age kids for a year on the public money Chong spent in restaurants in 2009.
What mental health and addiction programs lost funding while Chong and our other MLAs dined out? How many long-standing community services closed their doors so our provincial politicians wouldn’t have to feel the pinch in their own work lives?
Chong is simply the latest politician to have caught the media’s fleeting eye. She isn’t the first and won’t be the last who has taken what was on offer as a right.
But she certainly owes more of an explanation to her constituents than just her comments this week defending her level of spending due to “no meals or things like that provided for” in much of the work she does for government.
Out here in the real world, there aren’t many meals provided, either. We mostly have to pay our own way. I doubt many of us spend anything like $61 a day on restaurant food, probably because spending money like that becomes a lot less appealing when it comes out of your own wallet.
Why did Chong choose to spend so much when she knew full well that so many services her government funded were being sacrificed? I hope she’s reflecting on that right now.  But I also wonder why the premier didn’t just put expense rules like that on hold in the first place, when it became clear that B.C. needed to buckle down.
Not every politician dined out to excess, of course. Saanich-Gulf Islands MLA Murray Coell, spent a comparatively modest $1,321 on restaurant meals last year. And it goes without saying that being a politician is hard work, requiring frequent travel and quite a lot of restaurant dining.
But if Gordon Campbell is the leader of B.C., then surely he knows that leading by example is a cardinal rule. Yet what kind of example is it when government pays its cabinet ministers $152,000 - more than double the median household income in B.C. - and they still rack up another $6,000 on restaurant meals?
(Interesting fact: Chong’s salary and food expenses combined would cover 52 rent supplements of $250 for a whole year. It would keep 22 people on income assistance.)
I do know enough about budgets to recognize that Ida Chong eating out less often wouldn’t necessarily translate into more money for public services. Every pocket of funding has its own line on the budget. Money doesn’t readily flow even within programs, let alone between different ministries or from the political level to the squeezed community services below.
But Campbell’s government could change that tomorrow if they wanted to. MLAs could be told to make a real effort to reduce expenses, and savings could be channelled directly into struggling services.  Wouldn’t that be a good-news story?
Instead we’re reading about Chong’s eating habits and feeling betrayed again. It’s like catching your parents gulping down steak and lobster in the shed while the kids huddle in the kitchen eating gruel.
 Come on, you guys. B.C. is hurting, and it’s a real drag to find out that our political leaders aren’t sharing the pain. Pack a lunch.


Stephanie said...

Approximately 11 days of her food budget would cover my disability pension for an entire month. Empathy? They don't know the meaning of the word.
Shameless pigs.

Stephanie said...

Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful columns. I always enjoy reading them.

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